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The Bengals Built A Contender Around Joe Burrow By Nailing Free Agency. Now's The Time To Go All-In On The Trade Market

Kevin C. Cox. Getty Images.

Don't get me wrong, drafting Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Logan Wilson and other key pieces played a huge part in the Cincinnati Bengals' run of success over the past two seasons. Contrary to popular belief, though, the Bengals fundamentally shifted their culture and organizational philosophy the year Burrow arrived by spending big in free agency.

Here are the Bengals' ranks in the NFL by most money spent in free agency over the past decade, per Spotrac:

  • 2012: 16th
  • 2013: 16th
  • 2014: 32nd
  • 2015: 16th
  • 2016: 28th
  • 2017: 32nd
  • 2018: 28th
  • 2019: 16th
  • 2020: 2nd
  • 2021: 8th
  • 2022: 12th

So after refusing to cross into the top half of the league even amid a run of one-and-done playoff appearances, the Bengals suddenly made a big move. Given how counter that was to what had transpired before, it's incredible that they hit on so many of their open-market signings.

Totally understandable that the public perception about Cincinnati owner Mike Brown and the franchise is that they won't be able to pay or keep everyone. And while that's true, some guys will indeed need to walk, the Bengals have a championship-caliber roster as is. It'd be much easier to tweak and maintain the current core group via allotted draft picks and, by sacrificing some of those, trades that could give them a kick in the ass to truly challenge the Chiefs for AFC superiority.

I've previously written a big preview of moves the Bengals could/should make:

Amid all the Bengals offseason discourse happening right now, I'm about to stump for a little twist that I haven't seen discussed anywhere else. Pulling off multiple big-time trades while dealing with a second Joe Burrow contract would be no small task, yet it makes the most sense for Cincinnati to target two stars in particular…

Ready? …

Giphy Images.

Why Jalen Ramsey and Darren Waller are ideal Bengals trade targets

You can see me discuss all this in the TikTok video above, but let me break down the key takeaways.

NFL owners are required to put a certain amount of guaranteed money in escrow for player salaries. Because the Bengals are among the least-liquid ownerships in the sport, they hand out far fewer guarantees than most teams do. Or at least they have.

Joe Burrow's mega payday is going to change that — but only to a certain degree. Star wide receiver Tee Higgins is also able to negotiate a new deal that'll kick in for 2024 along with Burrow's, not to mention Logan Wilson and several marquee free agents for next offseason including defensive tackle DJ Reader.

Welp, if you look at Ramsey's contract, his extension runs through 2025 and only contains five million dollars of guaranteed money remaining. Not only does that give you crazy cap flexibility going forward, but it also gives you a safeguard for rolling the dice on a ballsy trade that could pay huge dividends.

Not to just blow up this blog with my TikTok stuff, but it's necessary to plug my very first video when it comes to Darren Waller. You'll be wondering how the fuck it's relevant at first. No problem. Hang with me and I'll explain.

I made a nice little chunk of change by hammering the Over rushing yards props for 2022 on Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey. Why did I do this? Both of them dealt with injuries the previous two years at a highly physical position. That didn't change the fact that they're transcendent talents who were due to stay healthy. 

Sportsbooks everywhere doubted their ability to bounce back and set their totals way too low. Saquon wound up with 1,312 rushing yards, while CMC racked up 1,139 despite a heavy usage role as a pass-catcher (85 receptions).

After not missing a single game in 2019 or 2020 when he amassed 197 receptions, Waller has played in 20 total the last two years. A nagging hamstring issue was what limited him for the most part this past season. Not that serious. 

While I wouldn't be disappointed if the Bengals re-signed Hayden Hurst or went with a rookie relatively early in the 2023 NFL Draft, the appeal of bringing a playmaker like Waller to the fold is too tempting to pass up. You can bet he'd welcome a change of scenery away from the Josh McDaniels Raiders given how much of a shit show that has been. 

Imagine Waller being plugged into an offense with a QB like Joe Brrr and a group of pass-catchers that already features Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Holy shit would that be hard to stop.

Aaaaaaand here's the other shoe dropping: Waller has zero guaranteed dollars on his contract following the 2023 campaign. His current deal runs through 2026.

On the off chance you don't watch my first TikTok thing, here's proof that there's enough room for Cincinnati to keep the vast majority of their core, get their necessary extensions done and add Ramsey and Waller to the books. Shout out to OverTheCap.com:

As you can see from the slapdash GM job I did, I used the franchise tag as placeholders for new Burrow/Higgins/Wilson deals to assess what the 2024 camp might look like, and restructured the contracts of B.J. Hill, Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson to free up a little 2023 salary cap real estate.

You can see safety Vonn Bell highlighted as the free agent I'd like to keep this offseason, along with Reader in '24. Notice how I didn't even get rid of Joe Mixon or La'el Collins, who are among the starters whose futures are the most up in the air at the minute. That could save Cincinnati all sorts of space if they're let loose before they're free agents in 2025.

I'm telling you, Who Dey Nation, this is all so doable if Duke Tobin and the front office can just make the moves and convince Mike Brown to write the checks. Buying low on Waller might mean he only costs, like, a couple Day 3 draft picks over the next two years. Can't imagine Ramsey will be a prohibitive cost, maybe one first- or second-round pick plus a player or additional draft asset? Well worth it if you ask me.

Yes, the Bengals have done a phenomenal job balancing the draft and free agency the past few years to position themselves as a Super Bowl threat. Now though, I'd love to see these two trades in particular to help give them some elite talent at key spots to get them over the hump and in prime position for more home playoff games and, ultimately, a Lombardi Trophy.

Twitter @MattFitz_gerald/TikTok